Pruning is an indispensable part of successful fruit tree growing.
In a sense, pruning coerces a fruit tree from its wild ‘perpetuation of the species at all costs’ state toward one geared toward strong root growth, high-quality fruit in reasonable quantities and healthy, easy to harvest trees.
A tree left to its own devices will continue its skyward climb until, given other environmental factors, it reaches maximum height. In a relatively short period of time its understory becomes shaded out by the unchecked and now spindly growth. Most of its fruit will be found on the top story, sometimes 25-30 feet in the air. But that’s not going to happen to you!
Properly pruning fruit trees brings the fruit within reach, allows sunlight into the lower story and promotes good air circulation.
Dormant Season Pruning
Most people prune in the dormant season; it’s easy on the tree and much easier to see its branching structure and the location of buds.
However, additional pruning in summer also has many advantages. It increases the speed at which the branching framework can be developed and redirects the tree’s energy into the desired branches, hastening their growth and bud formation and allowing sun to nourish the lower wood, promoting fruit bud formation.
In summary, it is a good idea to do some pruning in both the dormant season and at least once during the summer.
Tip: Lay a tarp under the trees you’re pruning and toss branches on it as you go. When you’re finished, simply drag them off.
Shape of Tree
Fruit trees can be trained into many different forms, but two forms dominate in home gardens: open center and central leader.
Open center (also called open vase or bush) is used mostly for stone fruits – peaches, nectarines, apricot, plum and cherry – although any fruit tree species can be trained successfully using this system. The main idea is to create spreading growth that is upwardly and outwardly directed, by pruning and/or branch bending. The center of the tree is kept relatively free of shoots, ideally from the very beginning of training.
Central leader (also called dwarf pyramid) is generally used for apples and pears. The goal is to form a tree resembling a Christmas tree in shape with one continuous trunk running from bottom to tip. In this system, ‘whorls’ of 3-5 scaffold branches along the main trunk form tiers, spaced about 3 feet apart, the first set of branches starting 18-36 inches above the ground. Each ascending tier of branches is shorter than the one below.
Types of Cuts
Two kinds of cuts are used to prune fruit trees: heading and thinning. Both are required because without heading, the trees will not make the needed branches and will grow too tall, and without thinning the growth is too dense and will shade lower wood, inhibiting flower bud formation.
Heading cuts leave a stub behind, and involve removal of part of a shoot by cutting about ¼ inch above a lateral bud.
Thinning cuts remove entire shoots and reduce branch crowding. Thinning cuts are also used to establish the main scaffold branches of the tree by removing unwanted lateral branches during initial tree training. A tree made less dense by thinning is also easier to treat with pesticide sprays.
In all cases it’s advisable to learn about a given fruit tree’s growth habits, to recognize fruiting spurs and which cuts are more likely to result in a thriving tree. If deemed worth the effort, bringing older trees back to health is a gradual process, often requiring a few years.
Tackling the Job
Pruning can be fairly time consuming, labor intensive and downright confusing without some instruction; all the more so when trees have been left to their own devices for more than a couple of years. It can also be difficult to make yourself remove clusters of blossoms, snap off baby fruit and slice into new shoots. Yet it can be enjoyable exercise out there in the crisp winter air – and then of course there’s the fruit to look forward to.
Evergreen Nursery offers free seasonal pruning demonstrations and offers a wide range of quality pruners, loppers and saws to equip you for success.
Many find it more efficient to call on our landscape maintenance specialists to carry out their pruning needs. Sound appealing? Make your appointment today – we’ll take care of the rest!
Much of this information gleaned from articles by Dr. Mark S. Brunell for Alameda County Extension Service